NASA is on cloud nine. It has plans to expand its exploratory horizons through deploying solar sails that will harness solar power. This will increase spacecraft efficiency and lower operating costs. NASA recently unveiled plans to advance the technology by rolling out the largest-ever solar sail created— in 2015.
The next-gen solar spacecraft will deploy and operate a sail seven times larger than any sail that has fluttered in space. NASA’s Solar Sail mission is one of the three proposed Technology Demonstration Missions set to metamorphose space communications, deep space navigation and in-space propulsion capabilities.
Solar sails use radiation pressure from star and laser light to push large and ultra-thin mirrors up to high speeds.
For quite some time, NASA has been testing the technology on small scales. A solar sail powered spacecraft was successfully deployed in outer space with the launch of Japan’s IKAROS on May 21, 2010. NASA’s NanoSail-D — a 100 square-foot sail that re-entered earth’s atmosphere in May this year – lacked maneuvering capability, but it did collect valuable de-orbiting data that will contribute to this upcoming mission’s success.
The lower-cost technology could convert small satellites into space debris cleaners. Now there are 6,000 tons or 20,000 pieces of space debris in orbit. Much of this has accumulated over a period of 50 years from abandoned spacecraft, but satellites are still falling dead with some frequency — the 2.4 ton ROSAT spacecraft crashed to the earth in November.
Solar sail-powered space travel is tantalizing renewable energy enthusiasts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is collaborating with NASA and L’Garde Inc. in the project, which includes test planning, flight hardware, launch, ground operations, and post-testing assessment and reporting.